It’s ironic that the only people who have been excluded from the school reform debate are those most affected by it: the students. Except for occasional tokenism and the efforts of a few enlightened educators and reformers, their voices have been remarkably absent from the national discussion about the objectives of schooling and how we should achieve them.
That’s worth thinking about. Do we not believe that the people closest to the action have anything useful to say? (If that’s the case, we’re at least partly responsible.) Or are we afraid to ask them because we won’t like their answers?
The reform rhetoric of the past 25 years has been about making sure that children acquire the knowledge and skills they need to become productive, responsible citizens and to help sustain America’s economic welfare and democratic institutions. Common sense suggests that we’re more likely to accomplish these goals if schools model democratic principles in the way they conduct their business and give students the opportunity to participate in decisionmaking. If we want kids to become productive citizens, we should expose them to real-world issues, both in classrooms and in their communities. And if we want them to become responsible adults, we should expect them to take more responsibility for their education.
If we want kids to become responsible adults, we should expect them to take more responsibility for their education.
We tell students that they are the future, the leaders of tomorrow. But we do a poor job of preparing them for that role and behave as if we don’t have much confidence in them. Public schools are more about control and conformity than they are about unleashing the enormous untapped potential of their 50 million students.
There are some notable exceptions, and they offer a compelling lesson for teachers and administrators. One of them is Kennebunk High School in Maine. Students there have a pronounced voice, mainly because principal Nelson Beaudoin passionately believes they’ll use it constructively and creatively. “I would rather have a school of volunteers than a school of prisoners,” he said during a recent presentation. He later added: “We cannot expect students to accept responsibility unless we provide them with choices.”
Students participate in virtually every decision at Kennebunk High. They provide feedback to teachers on their courses and instruction. Instead of parent-teacher conferences, there are student-led conferences during which teenagers discuss their progress with parents and tell them who they are, where they’re going, and what they need to get there.
Kennebunk abandoned its elected student council (which was mainly a popularity contest) in favor of open membership. Any student can attend, and 40 to 50 show up at meetings instead of the handful of elected members who used to. The council is based on the legislative model: Students offer proposals, which are debated and ultimately voted on. And the decisions are not limited to such trivia as choosing a theme for the prom—the kids have a say in school rules and operating procedures.
Twice a month, council representatives meet for breakfast with Beaudoin to discuss school improvements. They have a representative on the school board who reports monthly to board members on behalf of the students. The school’s staff-leadership team consults regularly with students on important matters.
Kennebunk also has a significant service-learning program that’s linked to the curriculum and allows the teenagers to address real community issues. In his book, Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone, Beaudoin notes that one of the biggest benefits of service learning for students is the “validation of their self-worth.”
Stepping Outside is full of inspiring stories about students who “deliver thoughtfully” when given responsibility. But empowering youth “is not a simple proposition,” Beaudoin writes. “The idea carries with it all sorts of anxiety and fear. ... It requires a tremendous amount of trust from adults, a tremendous amount of responsibility from students, and a framework that provides opportunities for student leadership.”
Sounds to me like the essence of good education.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as The Silent Majority